March 2008

Like Jo A, I must stress that I only have access to a copy of Delia’s new How to Cheat at Cooking through A Friend. Nowt to do wiv us, guv. Here are some of the handy hints from the introduction:

For instance, why not cut out grating cheese altogether when you’re busy? There are now some good-quality ready-grated (or sliced) cheeses available.

There are ready prepared and chopped vegetables, too, and a whole variety of prepared salads and fruits.

So many wonderful ingredients are just waiting to make your life easier: ready-made ciabatta breadcrumbs, tins of fried Spanish onions, ginger already grated, pastry cases already cooked.

Thanks to frozen diced onions, for instance, you’re not forced to peel and chop an onion if you don’t want to.

At the risk of sounding like Mrs Beeton hitting the crème de menthe, don’t being such a fricking precious wuss-ass. Now, I’m as guilty of chucking a bag of salad into the basket as the next lazy twenty-something (bizarre but true fact: if there’s only one of you, it’s actually cheaper and less wasteful to buy salad in this form, unless you want to devote at least four hours a day to chomping through Hearts of Romaine like a herbivorous slave). And my mother is possibly the only woman left in England who still makes her own pastry and isn’t a frothing Tory. But I mean, “Thanks to frozen diced onions”, for all love? As long as I live, Random Forces of the Universe, may I never have to thank frozen diced onions for anything!

So far, as you will have spotted, this is just a self-fancying cook’s rant. I like chopping onions. It’s soothing, satisfying, aesthetically pleasing. Poems have been written about peeling onions. Who was it who said of the red onion that you peel away the outer layer and what’s underneath is so perfect that you have to peel away the next layer as well to see if it gets even better? And it does! You end up with a glowing ruby jewel of a vegetable about half the size of the one you bought. And much less dinner.

But this is about to become a somewhat more serious rant, because Delia’s polypropylene-sheathed paean to rampant consumerism comes to my notice hard on the heels of this CiF article about the rising costs of food. In the spirit of mean-hearted dark treacly bitterness, I find it hard to much have time for Rosie Boycott, Lib Dem feminist or no. Only baby-boomers whose mamas sent them to Cheltenham Ladies College can afford to live simple ethical lives breeding simple organic pigs in simple organic Somerset. But, accidents of birth aside, she is discussing a theme of increasing potency for our times here:

Almost all the food we eat – 95% – is oil-dependent, so as oil prices rise, the cost of food does too. Oil is central to fertilisers, mechanised production, transportation and packaging. However, between 1950 – when mechanisation and fertilisers transformed farming into agribusiness – and 1984, world grain production increased by 250%. The consequent cheapness of food kept inflation down and allowed for the postwar consumer boom.

For years experts have been asking what will we eat when the crises of climate change and oil depletion converge, with the possible end of our globalised food supply. Our tea and coffee and spices might still come from abroad, but what about salad vegetables, beef and fresh orange juice? Cheap oil has let the west regard the whole world as its farmyard, always seeking the cheapest place to produce and process.

I notice that some commenters – the CiF commenter is a hardy, intelligent breed I increasingly admire; like Gloucester Old Spots, really – take issue with Rosie’s figures. And she does end up reducing the problem down to the oddly narrow and somewhat self-defeating notion that we eat too much meat (“So, umm, you will be stopping your pig production, won’t you? Mustn’t make the problem worse now, must we?” cheeks Tim Worstall) but in essentials she’s right so far as I understand it. Food has gone through a period of artificial plenty in the first world over the last forty years, and barring a sophisticated politico-technological response of which the world does not, currently, look capable, those days are now over. With the supply of oil increasingly dependent on good old-fashioned land wars and the whim of Russia, we’re on the brink of rediscovering the fluctuating prices and scarcities familiar to our ancestors.

I wonder that Rosie and Delia can be living on the same planet. Which they do, not just literally, but in the narrow sense of professional writers with a strong interest in food. If the food crisis is really coming – is really here for much of the developing world, and I feel the impact of the price of milk on my own little margin - how can it be right that the Glossy Cookbook market is complicit in the pretence that ordinary people can not only afford all this food and its cost in oil, but can afford to have other people chop it, dice it, wash it, dress it and tie a great big organic straw ribbon round it and the cost of all that in oil?

Well, it’s not right of course. But it’s interesting. A little bit fin de siècle, a bit “excesses of the court of the Sun King”. Marie Antoinette, at the very brink of disaster for the ancien régime, would have approved of Delia’s principle, even if she abhorred the absence of gold-leaf-dipped brioche from the store-cupboard essentials section. Marie Antoinette played at farming herself, of course. But the difference, in this classless society, is that we’re all rich now. There must be something in the bottled water on CiF at the moment, because Polly Toynbee was also making an unusual amount of sense last week:

…the median earners on £22,000 and below are 50% of the voters – but that’s a bit less than MPs get as expenses for running their second homes. So much gold dust is kicked in the nation’s eyes by scores of TV programmes selling property beyond most people’s imagining, or celebrity handbags costing thousands, that the delusion that most people are affluent has entered Labour’s lexicon and even its soul.

We live in strange and disturbing times when, on the apparent eve of a global food crisis, chopping an onion is considered by rich people to be hard work that an ordinary person shouldn’t feel they have to do. I wonder what How to Cheat at Cooking will symbolise when the socio-economic history of the early twenty-first century comes to be written? 

Going up to Oxford in 1997 from my unremarkable state school (oh, god, it’s another freaking “My struggle at Oxbridge” post, when will you wingeing twats realise we’re just not interested and shut up, etc) there was this guy on my course. We both took Cicero for our Special Subject. I only ever had a couple of conversations with him, but he seemed perfectly nice, if a bit of a classic rich-Tory-public-schoolboy-from-Balliol, and he was certainly bright. We both got Firsts, I believe, and we both won scholarships.

Then what? Well, I carried on in the groves of academe for a while, largely funded by you on account of being awesomely brilliant (cheers; I owe you a pint), then chucked it in and did the normal thing all graduates who don’t have any money behind them but find strategy consulting and banking inimical have to do. I got a job, a boring, averagely-paid, first jobber’s job in a large company where I’d have space to develop, in a line of work I thought was probably moderately interesting once you got a bit higher up. Well, that turned out to be a total disaster, so I took another job, a stressful, slightly-below-averagely-paid, second jobber’s job in a different line of work I thought would at least keep my mind active and me off the breadline while I pursued more inspiring projects in my free time. That didn’t work either, so I chucked it all in and decided I’d rather be free and poor and answer to no-one. I was going to decide how I wanted to live and what I wanted to do with my time on earth, and then try and fit the money-making in around that. Hooray!

A year into the experiment, little by little, it’s working out. People periodically give me interesting work that I’m good at largely on terms of my choosing. I don’t have to get out of bed at the same time every day. I can’t yet support myself on freelance work alone, there are some weeks when feeding myself is a struggle, and every journey into central London in particular has to be carefully costed and weighed against the probable social/professional/financial benefit of making it. Temping is ever more of a bind, particularly because the people whose well-remunerated task it is to find you the work don’t always appear to appreciate the basic calculation at hand – is it worth my while to get out of bed and do it? One agency tried to get me to take a four-hour per day job at £9.50 an hour in central London, and for the benefit of those lucky enough not to live here, a monthly zone 1 ticket from where I live costs somewhere in the region of £100. You, as they say, do the math. But, day by day, I inch a bit further towards vindication.

I certainly couldn’t have got this far without a ferocious and unceasing barrage of support from family and friends, and while some of that support has been financial, no-one is in a position to bankroll my whimsical idea of what I should ideally be allowed to do with my time (least of all me, it seems). But I like the freedom, I like the way my interests have blossomed and sometimes brought unexpected gain (I’d have stayed an armchair supporter of the Lib Dems in my old life, for one thing) and I still think my original calculation will probably turn out to be correct: if you do things you like and are good at, you’ll end up roughly solvent anyway, and much happier than if you just pay the rent at the expense of all else.

So I’m going to stick with it and see how Year Two pans out. If nothing else I have acquired a properly solid grasp of what it’s like, how exhausting and soul-destroying and mind-numbing it is to live on a low income. And I’m someone with no dependents and a way out! This isn’t a sob story – I’ve chosen this life, and I could go and get a middlingly paid third-jobber’s job tomorrow if it really got unbearable. But it has given me at least the shadowiest inkling of what it must like to live on something like a minimum wage and not have a way out, and believe me, it’s the stuff of the most shuddering twitchy nightmares imaginable.

What strikes me most of all is just how tiring it is. All those little daily calculations – shall I spend this pound on a packet of pasta I can live on for four days or shall I save it for the journey in to work tomorrow? How much is on my oyster card? I can only top it up from my credit card at the moment, and that’ll put my minimum payment beyond reach unless that cheque finally arrives. How many more pay dates are there before the rent is due? And of course, the classic which will raise a groan from every economic liberal - is it worth my taking that work, or will I lose more in housing benefit than I gain from the extra pay? You expend so much energy just thinking through how you’re going to survive.

I used to regard people on benefits with low incomes with extreme compassion but no real empathy. Like most thoughtless young sprigs, I thought they (it’s always “they”, isn’t it) had either been unreasonably unlucky or made bad choices and, poor things, didn’t have the psychological werewithal to leverage themselves out of trouble. It’s a far less sympathetic and extreme version of this philosophy that prompts Tories to bark “Well, what’s stopping them from working?”. Left-liberal answers usually reference lack of skills and low self-esteem, but I would add to these sad truths a bus fare, an interview suit (or equivalent), no familial obligations and a decent meal in the belly, and the time it takes to figure out how to acquire the money to assemble all that - things even the most empathetic lefty or liberal finds hard to conceive f unless they’ve been there. These days I don’t just empathise – I salute every last one of Britain’s benefit claimants for carrying on at all. How the hell they do it is beyond me.

Withal, Tory-chap-who-took-Cicero-with-me hadn’t so much as crossed my mind in over half a decade when suddenly, hanging around the blogs one day, as is my wont, I come across a name on Lib Dem Voice that rings a bell, and a few clicks later I am looking at  said chap peeping out of a photoshopped Tory mock-up! Yes, my erstwhile co-classicist is Robin Walker, Tory PPC for Worcester, his father’s old constituency. Good grief! thinks I. I wonder what he’s been up to? Hm, he left university and started his own business. Ve-ry nice. Then after that went into press communications in the finance and industrial sectors. Thence to the PPC candidature. There are those who would use phrases like “well-worn groove” to describe this particular path of progress.

Now, to be plain, I am not for one moment denigrating the achievements of someone I don’t know much about. And the whole game of trying to quantify the advantages of a PPC who has a former MP for a father is so beset with complexities and caveats as to be basically unplayable. But the observation remains that at a time when the academically bright lower-middly class kid had to go and get a boring job, the academically bright moneyed upper-middly class kid was able to “start his own business”. And by all means shoot me down in flames if you’re out there, Robin, but I’d be extremely surprised if you had to temp to support your burgeoning career (and two weeks’ paid work experience at the Adam Smith Insitute secured by a family friend doesn’t count).

Whenever we talk about poverty of ambition, we generally mean kids whose parents have my financial situation, but not my education or basic advantages. If it was unthinkable for someone like me to leave university and start their own business, it’s unthinkable for some kids to do what I consider my fallback position – go and get a middlingly decent job. Unlucky them. Lucky me. Luckier Robin Walker. Occasionally someone from a truly impoverished background does break out – gets the university education, gets the good job. I’ve made a much smaller, but still upward progression – I’ve (belatedly) done something that normally only rich kids do, because they have a fallback position that I don’t have – financial support to a decent standard of living.

They seem to get very upset about this, by the way. I’ve known moneyed people complain vociferously when I put this theory to them, and protest that they “never take any money” from their parents. That’s not the point, I explain patiently (assuming I believe them; often it seems to turn out that actually they live in daddy’s town flat rent-free but don’t consider that to be money changing hands). It’s the mindset that coming from money gives you. That anything is possible. That there will always be a second chance. That you can take a risk. That you can leave university and not instantly be panicking about how your CV looks at the expense of all else. Essentially, as the Cleggster pointed out in his conference speech, it’s freedom. No point in, as the libertarians have it, owning yourself unless you can feed, clothe and otherwise take care of what you own.

On the whole, then, a Good Year. It has shown me that poverty of ambition is a graduated thing, and the magic circle of those who are totally untouched by it is actually vanishingly small. It has been the making of me as a liberal, and of my social conscience as a sophisticated instrument of analysis, as opposed to a great big wobbly cuddle for the disadvantaged. Most of all it’s made me less fucking complacent about where my next meal is coming from, and accordingly I recommend it as a lifestyle to anyone who has ever thought of people on benefits and/or low incomes as a great big unwashed lump of “them”.

Wiche hande dostow employe? Sinistre or dextre?

Spurred by this post from Pink Dog and the subsequent comment about the proportion of left-handed people in the population at large (11%), and the possible over-representation of left-handers in the Lib Dem support base, I decided to run a poll. Unfortunately, WordPress blogs, or the idiot-proof ready-hosted ones I use, do not allow polls without lots of tedious Mucking About.

But, I sez to meself, Mortimer, I sez, stating whether you’re right- or left-handed is hardly sensitive information is it? Why not have a deeply literal Olde Worlde Polle whereby people – novel idea coming up – just write down their choice and at the end a little man in a toga comes and empties the amphora and counts them all up?

So I invite you, if you are or think you might be a Lib Dem voter/supporter/member, to state your paw of preference in the comments (yes, that includes you, Pink Dog), and we’ll see how it pans out. Of course, if you are worried by the distinct possibility that Jacqui Smith might be scanning my blog for information on cack-handed miscreants so that she can better enact policies against them, you can always anonymise and I won’t breathe a word.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The Very Orange (and currently, it seems, Amusingly Pink) Julian H was first off the blocks this morning with That Letter from the Greens, to the which alarming turn of events – wot, a Lib Dem can’t even trust their fellow eco-weirdies not to dump on their head any more? - I can now add my own snippet.

The fact that Siân Berry is now in alliance with a Labour party that has just used green tax revenue to concrete over its deficit problems and wants the whole of the South East to be made into a sustainable network of jumbo jet runways is bad enough. In fact it makes a change because the London mayoral contest has so far proved disappointing for seekers of dramatic political narrative. Notwithstanding the bendy bus bollocks, and allowing for the vagaries of different agencies, the poll figures show a fair degree of cohesion if you overlook the initial jump in Brian Paddick’s ratings. It’s newspaper columnists’ adam’s apples (invariably) that have been bobbing up and down.

The only relief has come from Martin Kettle, who is under the weather with Batshit Crazy Talk Syndrome at the moment, as evidenced by his bizarre contention that in order to be “taken seriously” in the London mayoral race, what the Liberal Democrats really need to do is, er, replace their candidate a month before polling day. His reasoning here is that Vince Cable is an indispensible asset to the party and needs to be put into a position of prominence. What, you mean like, make him deputy leader and shadow chancellor? Hey, interesting thought, Martin! We’ll have lunch.

One trend only is discernible - over the last two polls alone, Ken’s support has dipped slightly and Boris has picked up the slack. No wonder Labour is worried. So worried that we learn from the People’s Republican Intelligence Service that they have been on the phone to the Cleggster twice in recent weeks, asking if Our Brian could possibly see his way maybe to recommending that his supporters give Ken second preference pretty please?

Now, I’ve seen it suggested in public forums that Brian Paddick has some sort of obligation to side with Ken on the grounds that we must keep Boris out at all costs, and I don’t know whether any peddlars of this horrid noisome fallacy are reading, but if you are I have implanted an intelligent virus into my blog which will strike you down with a slightly unpleasant cold. Why the hell should Brian back Ken? I mean, apart from the fact that Labour policy in London on, er, housing, crime and the environment is largely repellant to Lib Dem principles? Brian is backing Brian, for goodness’ sake.

“No,” said the Cleggster, and put the phone down. The rest is public record - Labour went for the second best option and hooked up with the pathetically eager Greens instead, for whom Labour’s dismal record on pretty much everything they hold dear was apparently just so much organic sunflower seed.

But it gets worse because Ken is having his revenge on the Lib Dems for spurning his generous offer to allow us to support his continuing bid for amphibious world domination. The Greens have suddenly unaccountably learned how to be nasty and proactive, and today are delivering their open letter to Nick Clegg suggesting that Lib Dems should be voting for Berry. You can tell they’re being nasty because their main charge appears to be that Brian Paddick, a serving police officer of thirty years’ standing, is a “celebrity candidate”, as opposed presumably to Berry who has long been slogging away in the public interest by dint of appearing on Richard & Judy.

Much of their reasoning, such as it is, is easily dealt with:

Mr Paddick has pledged to scrap the Low Emissions Zone… He would cancel the higher-rate Congestion Charge for gas-guzzling Band G vehicles

The current congestion charge policy is holding the number of cars in London steady, not decreasing it. And small wonder, because £25 is fairly traded Brazil nuts to a Chelsea Tractor driver, and some categories of vehicle currently escape the charge altogether. Why should exceptions or allowances be made for ANY kind of vehicle? Is this a Congestion Charge or not? The aim should be to get cars OUT of Central London, not give away little treats to those who drive slightly less polluting cars. And the whole place should be a Low Emissions Zone, for god’s sake! The logical thing to do if you’re serious about getting cars out of London is to replace the current staggered and time-limited system with a uniform 24/7 charge, whether you’ve got a Chelsea tractor or a biscuit tin on wheels. 

The Greens naturally make no mention of the Lib Dem suggestion of a £10 charge on the whole of Greater London for people coming in from outside, which would have a fundamental effect on commuting patterns. And in response to the insinuation that Paddick is chasing Conservative votes, I can personally assure you, Greeny-Browny people, that this one ain’t playing well in the affluent Tory suburbs at all. Transport habits in London need to be changed, not validated with the odd bit of belt-tightening. Pissing about with this or that exception just isn’t getting us anywhere and that’s clear in the figures.

And he plans to privatise the Tube network to place management entirely in the hands of a single firm.

Yeah, because PPP has really worked out. Three-quarters of the Tube network is currently in administration or hadn’t you noticed? The London taxpayer is about to pick up the bill for the failings and inefficiencies of a private company – I’d say that’s pretty much a done deal on privatisation, wouldn’t you? Public-private partnership was a Labour decision made in 1999, Labour being – oh! – the party you’ve just got into bed with. The Lib Dem plan is simply to apply the same concessionary model that works much more successfully on the DLR to the tube network. Whether newspaper headline-writers like it or not, the issue is no longer private v. public, it’s shit private v. decent private. So let’s go with the model that has been proved to work, non? It’s sheer insanity to have one company managing the trains on a given line, another company doing the track maintenance, a third company staffing the stations, a fourth doing the signals and a fifth employed to generally sweep up and occasionally scrape depressed Green voters off the tracks.

So much for the arguments. It’s the soul-revolting back story I object to. Not only have the Greens sold out their principles to a pretty lowly sort of bidder, they’re now doing his “public relations” work in an attempt to split the anti-Labour vote, and target Number One is the man who refused to countenance any such deal.

I daresay if such a letter had been sent prior to the Green-Labour hook-up things would look different. They’d still have been wrong, and oddly personal in their choice of terms. But honour would have been intact. This just stinks. Going Brown really doesn’t suit you people.

Recently, we opened our first overseas embassy on Liberal Conspiracy, and we humbly recommend you, sirs, madams, to this piece on a subject dearer to our heart than is healthy or natural: tax.

I don’t normally cross-reference myself like this, on the grounds that if a thing is worth saying, it’s probably worth saying twice, and with different jokes. But I am getting increasingly het up about the misrepresentations of NuLabCon on this subject and am making it my personal mission to spread the word wherever possible, although mostly by hanging out on Comment is Free disguised as a small cerulean spiny rodent. Cunning, eh?

On returning from conference I spent Monday and Tuesday lying on the sofa thinking I was going to die, then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday lying on the sofa hoping I was going to die. Accordingly my crabbiness rating increased markedly and so, unhappily, did my internet activity.

Following the Budget that Ambition Forgot the usual shower of no-hoper NuLab apologists had to fix on to whatever desperate material was to hand. Thus, Jackie Ashley:

His very blandness gives him a sort of quiet authority

She is “cautiously optimistic”. Oh god, we’re all doomed. She rightly gets short shrift in the comments from people who despair of Labour but would never dream of voting Tory. Hellooooo!

Also hanging out on CiF was ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, reflecting with apparent puzzlement on the fact that Their Dave, while skewering Darling, darling!‘s shortcomings pretty effectively, had not actually provided any policies of his own outlined an alternative direction in his response to the Chancellor. Naturally, it was left to your correspondent to point out to poor Tim that Dave’s reticence in the matter of policy announcements is not actually to do with your actual reticence, and is more to do with your basic lack of, well, having any policies.

This was particularly pointed up by the headline currently halfway down ConHome which reads, thoughtfully “What should the Conservatives do next?” Christ knows. Open a gardening centre? Flee for higher ground? Answers on a postcard, please, and if the front bench fancy getting actually anything passed, now is the time to hand it over (at least it’ll be of our own free will; like handing over your wallet to a mugger before you get hit).

Even better, I see that Gorgeous Georgina Osbourne, who sat in total silence during the debate itself looking like – what was it? – a classicist at a chemistry seminar, has now had the budget explained to him and accordingly has posted a CiF piece and a video on ConHome explaining that “you’ll be £110 worse off”. Good soundbiting, that researcher – no, no, not for the press, for Georgina.

Elsewhere on, Graeme Archer outlines an education policy which Lib Dem readers may find spookily familiar, with the emphasis very much on empowering parents and communities to set up schools, run them how they wish and keep them open as long as they remain viable – the state’s role is to fund this, not to direct it. And what happens in the comments? Oh you know, the usual, racism, shouty plonkerism, leftie-bashing but almost more alarming even than that was the number of Tory posters who totally and utterly missed the point about the lack of state interference – we should bring back phonics, we should ban mixed race schools (yes, really!), we have failed the nation by no longer exercising absolute control over every aspect of the education system. Not. A. Clue. You wonder how the more intelligent Tories don’t seriously despair (in fact I noticed one in the comments doing just that). And they say we’re split. At least when we are divided over something it doesn’t disrupt a whole lot of complex brain-cell sharing arrangements.

Back to CiF, a Tory grub writes seeking to “decontaminate” the Tory brand by intimating that some of them don’t think everything went to the dogs after women were invented, and that it might be a jolly good wheeze to have a few more fillies on the Tory benches, because then the plebs might vote for us a little more. Actually, I ended up feeling sorry for this guy, as I do for many young, well-meaning Tories, because they are saddled with this impossibly out-of-touch leadership that couldn’t come up with a policy for getting out of bed, and a membership that is still, basically, a bunch of barking mad mysoginists. Tories seem to be writing for CiF in increasing numbers, by the way – ever since Their Dave published this piece a while back announcing that the Tory party recognised the existence of the internet.

Naturally, I did not pass up the chance to congratulate him on his discovery.

Benefits fall into two categories. There are the benefits that are the stuff of Daily Mailesque nightmares, and then there is the chichi San Franciscan make-up brand. I aspire to the latter but must, it seems, make do with the former.

I sat down one long winter evening recently to play with my accounts. I rather fancied I might be due an NIC repayment, you see. I was shocked, and I mean that sincerely. It would appear that since I quit full-time work last April I have earned a grand total of a little under seven thousand pounds. How the hell have I stayed alive? There have been handouts from Mummy and Daddy Mortimer, to be sure, but generally on the scale of “Have a £70 Sainsbury’s shop before you starve to death” rather than anything more substantial. It’s amazing what you can get from Sainsburys for seventy quid, obviously.

Bugger this for a lark! thinks I, I have a Republic to run! So off to Wood Green I went with a sheaf full of paper documenting my financial fecklessness, filled in a surprisingly clear and straightforward Housing and Council Tax benefits form (admittedly it helped that I wasn’t blind, disabled, council-housed, Welsh, seeking asylum, a parent, a criminal, an offshore oil-rig worker or a previous claimant) and let the nice man take photocopies of everything. As an economic liberal I am opposed to Housing Benefit because it effectively channels state money into the pockets of buy-to-let private landlords. As a person without any dinner, I really couldn’t give a toss.

And this morning, three weeks to the day, a fat Haringey Council envelope plops onto my doormat, and a fat Haringey Council Benefits officer’s letter abjures me, fatly, as follows:

We need some more information to work out your benefit…


The payslips you provided for Reed Employment are not in a weekly consecutive order. Please provide your consecutive payslips for the last five weeks.

No, like you, dear reader, I don’t know what the fuck that means. They’re not in order you say? Could you not, um, shuffle the bits of paper round, or should I come and do it for you? I gave them three months’ worth of payslips, and a printed summary of the same directly from the Reed Employment website, but because in the nature of temping you don’t work every week, there weren’t five consecutive weekly dates on the five most recent payslips.

Please confirm how many hours per week do you work for Reed Employment

Oh you are fricking joking me now, right? Ever heard of “temporary work”?

So on to the phone I go, steaming from both ears and ready to take on the “computer says naaaaaaaah” culture so ably lampooned by the Cleggster in his conference finale speech and…

…Adam from Haringey Council Benefits Office is immediately sympathetic, understanding, helpful and even has a little laugh with me about the stupidity of a system which alleges to help those in unstable financial situations and yet doesn’t officially acknowledge the existence of any non-standard employment pattern. He says I should just state in writing what I’ve told him and everything will be fine.

Hmph, I bet you’re disappointed now. I know I was.

* I too am on benefits.

Batty Great Aunt Margaret Hodgepodge suggests we use the occasion of the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession in 2009 to have a bit of a collective bellyache about being English (hat-tip W&W). Does she ever turn up to cabinet meetings in her nightie? I think we should be told. I must admit I haven’t actually finalised my own plans for celebrating the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession yet, but at the moment they involve turning thirty so I’m quite open to the idea of distractions.

I wonder why Henry VIII? On consulting my voluminous memory, I find that there are several other monarchs since 1066 whose accession anniversaries have fallen under the current government. Have they been hubristically planning to make a big thing of Henry VIII’s anniversary ever since 1997, or have other candidates been given the chop along the way, so to speak? I wonder what Batty Aunt Margaret’s researcher’s notes looked like?

John – 1199 – is a Disney character voiced by Peter Ustinov. Nickname “Lackland” would draw unwanted attention to the housing crisis.

Henry IV 1399 – deposed his predecessor, faced rebellion in Wales, set events of Wars of the Roses in train. Not inspiring.

Henry I – 1100 - hm, everyone knows medieval history is pointless and rubbish, but let’s see what Wiki says…

Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged the Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.

The rest of Henry’s reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people

Ha, strike him out! Last thing we need is a medieval monarch who is more liberal and competent than the Labour party.

Edward VII 1901 – playboy. Reign saw zenith of Liberal Party. Hm.

James I 1603 – united England and Scotland – don’t even GO there, the SNP will bay like prairie wolves.

Edward II 1307 – probably gay, which is good, but deposed and murdered, bad. 

Anne 1707 – died youngish after lots of miscarriages, was a bit jowly. Nah. Too close to the Bill of Rights for comfort.

Henry VIII 1509 – absolutist monarch who confiscated private property from his subjects, used fear to demonise religious minorities, constantly involved in sleazy scandal – hey, he almost makes us look good!  

The Tories meanwhile are probably holding out for 2013, which will be the six-hundredth anniversary of the accession of Henry V, victor of Agincourt, and de facto the monarch who gave the English language a royal seal of approval when he took his coronation oath in English, whatever Batty Aunt Hodge might think. Not many people know that.

For an authentically Lib Dem flavoured reign I think I’d plump for Edward III (1327-1377). Not only did he have a dark and anti-disestablishmentarian sense of humour (“I shall never again appoint a chancellor I cannot hang”), lose bets to Rose, his laundress (it’s true, it’s in the Patent Rolls), and re-mould the office of Justice of the Peace to allow more types of case to be tried locally and accessibly, but his reign oversaw the development of parliament as an institution that could answer back. In 1341, the plucky half-formed little Commons refused to grant him a tax to fund the French wars unless he listened to their grievances first, thus establishing a pattern of tit-for-tat that ultmately prevented the equivalent of the French Revolution in England. The Good Parliament of 1376 saw the first open rebellion in the Commons against the wishes of the Crown (with the tacit backing of some of the lords), and the appointment of the first Speaker.

You get exactly the same sense of the uncannily familiar in the economic and social fabric of the time. The Black Death killed possibly up to a half of the population in 1348, and killed off the new shoots again in 1361. That meant a sudden surfeit of land and no-one to work it, and the market – and the enterprising individual within it – duly got to work. People could suddenly be a little more choosy about who they worked for, how much they were paid - they got a taste of setting their own terms. Legislation attempting to deal with the situation by fixing wage rates was as much use as a pebble against a flood.  They negotiated their way out of the already archaic serfdom bonds so that by the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the peasants in question were not so much downtrodden starvelings yearning to be free of their bonds as prosperous kulaks incensed at the idea that anyone should be able to order them around. The heightened individual wealth led to the first trends of conspicuous consumption among the mass of the population (and, predictably, the first laws attempting to curb it).

The period also saw the first highly amusing almighty database-style cock-up in the history of government administration. In 1371, a tax was to be collected for prosecuting the French wars (again), and for the purpose of working out how much each parish would need to pay, the number of parishes was estimated at45,000. Actual number? 8,000. The first clumsy fledgeling attempts at progressive taxation were made, with a scale ranging from 10 marks on the Duke of Lancaster down to a groat on the baldricks. The Bible was translated into English, the first gun was fired by an English army, the first English bankers jostled for business with the old Italian banking houses, most of the Inns of Court and a flood of Oxbridge colleges were founded to train up the administrative class - lawyers, priests and government ministers.

It really is possible to see the modern nation struggling to be born in the fourteenth century, and from this side of English history, the Tudors appear as a bit of a self-absorbed, absolutist, panicky aberration with control-freakish tendencies. But it’s written by the winners and all that, so their version of the medieval era has stood. They were, really, the original spin doctors. I’m sure I don’t need to, ahem, labour this too much more…

 Warning: great, big, long and European.

 I have been experiencing several days of bloggus interruptus. No sooner have I finally decided that I understand What Is Going On at Westminster (based purely on my own hyper-inductive powers of imagination, you collect, which may explain why at one stage everyone in a half-finished post was wearing superhero outfits) than some new crumb of incident comes my way and I have to pull the whole lot down and start again. Accordingly, we in the People’s Republic take no responsibility whatsoever for our opinion as it stands this current half-hour, for the impact any future reversals or revelations may have, or for any ducks, geese or other waterborne fowl of a nervous disposition who have the balance of their walnut-sized minds disturbed by the contents of this blog.

I am, I think, clear on one thing. The party line is incredibly simple. The Lisbon treaty is not, by itself, the constitution, and a referendum on it would be both historically inconsistent and a pointless gesture - the full referendum, please, so that we can fulfil our manifesto commitment. I write all this out at painful length because I want people to start differentiating between what is clear and what they agree with. Many of those who are complaining about how muddled the present position is are doing so because, essentially, they think there should be a vote on the Lisbon treaty and it is an a betrayal of the manifesto commitment not to have one. To state the gibbering obvious, “muddled” does not mean the same thing as “inimical to me”. To further state the gibbering obvious, both sides of opinion on the Lisbon treaty can make a reasonable case, and I know this because I have been blown backwards and forwards like a dandelion clock by some very good arguments.

It is by no means clear to me that party policy is a cynical attempt to stop the Lisbon treaty coming to a referendum.  This accusation of double-dealing again tends to come from people focussing on the fact that they want a treaty referendum… and anyone who opposes their wishes must be playing a terribly devious double game, non? Scepticism is a totally unhelpful discriminatory tool when it is constantly set to mach 5 - just look at Sean Gabb. Party policy seems to me to account for itself perfectly well. The constant theme is that a full membership referendum is what people want and I think this in itself is absolutely right. I’m not really much more convinced by Clegg’s MORI results than I am by iwantareferendum’s stitch-up, mind. My opinion is based on the simple self-evident truth that most people wouldn’t care about the difference between the two referenda if they were dressed in different-coloured spangly costumes and made to do a dance-off, and it’s therefore perfectly legitimate to assume that the general expression of desire for “a referendum” is a desire for the Big One – in fact, it’s arguably undemocratic not to make that on-the-safe-side assumption.

Now; my reaction to Ed Davey’s righteous rage in the Commons last week was jubilant. I saw things panning out in much the same way James Graham did, albeit with rather more optimistic whooping. From a position of tabling an amendment that would never get through, we had actually seized an initiative of sorts. On the one hand, it demonstrated the strength of feeling at the top of the party – if not throughout it – for a full membership referendum. On the other, the decision of who to vote with, once it came to be made back in grey reality, was now in the balance, and anything that causes a Tory fretting-frothing-barking-shouty-plonker time is fine by me.

A howl of insistence ensued, both from outside the party and from elements within it, that the Lib Dem MPs back the treaty referendum, and for a short time I was minded to join it. The treaty referendum is pretty obviously a decent second best option to the full shebang, and a considerably number of unusually frothy Lib Dems would have been mollified. Even better, Clegg could use the threat of backing the Tory amendment to put pressure on the government to relent and allow the Lib Dem amendment – which would split the opposition for good and all.

At this point, two more messengers burst through the fifty-foot iron gates and into the Central Sacred High Hall of the People’s Republic bearing further news. One, the Cleggster had reaped the first rather-less-than-glowing headlines of his leadership by cracking a thee-line whip on his party to abstain from the treaty referendum vote (“What? Repeat that at once, scurvy knave!”). Two, Ed “Da Man” Davey told the bloggers that pressurising the government was not a realistic possibility, numerically speaking (“What what WHAT? Take the messenger away and shoot him!”). He was adamant that abstention was the Right thing to do with a capital R. Well, that appeared to bring us back to square one, without an amendment of our own, and at risk of looking more than a little precious for putting a clothes peg on our nose and refusing to back someone else’s as a semi-acceptable second best.

At that stage, I couldn’t see the disadvantage in voting for it – still can’t. Either we back it and the government defeat it, in which case nothing changes. Or we back it and it succeeds, the Tories have shot their rather flimsy bolt and successfully killed a wren with it – well done, guys - and whether the referendum comes out as a Yes or No, we’re still quite entitled to point out that the real issue hasn’t been addressed. Because it won’t have been. Particularly if the answer from the Great British Public is a resounding “No”, as seems likely, because such an answer inevitably begs the bigger question. At which point, we appear to be casually leaning against a tree halfway round the course waiting for everyone else to catch up and nick our policies as per bloody usual.

But then the Labour rebel Ian Davidson threw an entirely new kind of chocolate chip into the cookie dough batch with his altie two-question referendum. And then the Cleggster had that “constructive chat” with the speaker. And then there was the MORI poll which, while I don’t believe for one moment that it actually means precisely what we’re claiming it means, is a sign that a wider concerted effort of some sort is at work. Let’s just imagine for a fraction of a second what it would be like if somehow Clegg could stick to his guns and pull this off – table the amendment again, have it debated, take it from there in the press coverage. He’d be a made man, and so would the party, and the Big Question would be addressed.

It’s quite possible that that’s what he’s gambling on. Something doesn’t quite add up about the numbers it would take to defeat the government, because the Tories sound worried enough to bring out the big guns – William Hague in full slag-off mode in the Sun today. Now, whether Clegg is feeling his way in the dark and trying not to lose Baronness Williams, or whether he is pretending to be Gregory Peck in Guns of Navarone and carrying out a nerves-of-steel planned mission, I see no reason why he needs to put everyone else out of their misery just yet. At this stage it still looks like abstention would be the worst thing to do – I’d prefer the treaty referendum to that and I think I’d prefer a free vote to either. But then I thought last Wednesday, along with everybody else, that Clegg should declare for the treaty referendum immediately, and now I’m glad he didn’t. So I’m rather hoping I’m wrong again.

We are very good citizens in my flat. We nobly take it upon ourselves to drink as much beer as possible in the interests of being able to recycle our collective bodyweight once a week in tinnies. Undeterred are we by our official demographic classification as young female problem binge drinkers. We recycle about half our rubbish, which is pretty good going given that we don’t actually have a recycling collection and have to tout it along to North Finchley under our own steam, or, in fact, petrol.

Under the government’s “pay as you throw” scheme, originally proposed last May as part of the “Waste Strategy for England 2007″, which would tax people on the amount of rubbish they failed to recycle, I reckon we’d come out smelling of Dettol. But it seems there won’t be a need for  extra push in rinsing out the Dolmio jars because, in the words of the All Party Parliamentary Committee for Communities, Local Government and That Sort of Thing, the government has now “mounted a whole-hearted retreat from even the limited policy set out last May”. If you can’t quite bear to read the whole 34-page report (you funny old thing), the Torygraph summarises:

Members of the Commons local government committee described plans for just five pilot schemes, beginning in 2009, as a “messy compromise” and accused the Government of a “loss of courage” in the face of criticism.

Cool beans, I say. The third biggest thing wrong with the idea was the embedding of microchips into wheelie bins, which as a vignette on the loss of privacy is just comically grotesque. The second biggest thing wrong was the fact that no-one controls what rubbish comes into their house. Until you tax supermarkets on surrounding their products with all this guff in the first place, you have no right whatever to tax individuals on what they then do to get rid of it. Some (yes, you!) will mention market correction at this point. To this, I say pfah! I also say that waiting for the market to correct and supermarkets to catch on would be unacceptably messy here, because by then certain levels of revenue would have come to be expected of the scheme, and the shortfalls as packaging reduced would be made up god knows how – but we can safely assume, not through corporation tax.

The biggest and most important thing wrong with the idea is that it wouldn’t work, and I’ll tell you why. We don’t have a wheelie bin, nor do any of the other five flats in this building, nor the further eighteen flats in this block, nor the thirty odd further up the road. Because we live over the shops, you see, and don’t have a driveway or a garden path or a kerb amongst the lot of us. At certain predefined times of the day we are permitted to take our rubbish out onto the Queen’s Highway and leave it by the smart little black and gold Haringey street bin (which does to be honest make one feel slightly like a scroat. It’s like when I’m buying gas in the newsagents and all the middle class mummies around me who thought I was One of Them freeze in shock and edge little Daisy and Isabella away from me).

But we’re talking about a small row of buildings - what about big estates? Most of them have communal bins – who is to say which households are recycling and thus deserve the “rewards” and which are naughty stinky poo-poo households who should get taxed? Are they just going to let everyone with any of sort of communal bin arrangement off? Somehow, I really doubt it. After all, it never works in reverse – my flatmate’s car got towed recently and she was warned she’d have to keep it on “private property” until she could get it re-registered and the tax renewed. Have you ever tried to explain to someone in Swansea what it’s like to live in a second-floor flat in London? It took us the entire morning and eighteen phone calls to find someone we knew who had some private sodding property.

Given that these sorts of problems will exist everywhere where communal front doors exist, I can’t be all that sorry that this scheme has been dramatically reduced. And given that I am, by most standards, a greenie control freak who would be quite happy to BAN cars from central London (apparently that’s “not liberal”, they tell me), that is saying something.


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